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Gregory Orr is famous and has won major awards. John Smith is a retired high school teacher from New Jersey who is a poet, well respected locally but unknown otherwise. Orr has blurbs from such luminaries as Albert Goldbarth, Ilya Kaminsky, and Naomi Shihab Nyef. John has blurbs from poets who have won grants and are well thought of, but not exactly headliners. I was asked to review Orr. I chose to review Smith. So why am I putting them together?

First, both inhabit the same generational orbit: Nam, eastern spirituality mixed with a dose of overcoming the dark spots through mindfulness, meditation, a sometimes didactic sense of wisdom that would not be out of place at a weekend retreat on Rumi. They do not draw their powers from decorative displays of language, and tend to have some of the traits inherent to the deep imagists, to Bly and James Wright and Galway Kinnell, but Orr is more sparse, less likely to let his lines breathe in an expansive form of pontification. Smith is more likely to experiment—even with shaped poems. He does not have a reputation to live up to and can be less confined in the competing poem of his name. Orr is confined to Orr. To his credit, he is trying to break free and I see this book as being the awkward manifestation of a voice change. But to the poems:

The River Inside the River: Gregory Orr

The River Inside the River is divided into three parts, the first being a sequence of meditative poems on Adam and Eve in the garden,(and, to an extent on exile as a form of growth and the superiority of becoming over mere being). The second part is a meditation on the “city of poetry” (sort of Orr’s gloss on the Kingdom of God, and Williams’ the city as poem) and the third section is a sort of culmination of the two previous sections. The title of the book should be a tip off that mystification and simplicity, the simplicity of mystification, and the mystification of simplicity are going to be a huge factor. Forget reading previous Orr. If we judge this book by itself, there is much in it that is part of the didactic-self-empowering- pocket wisdom market. Someone who fell in love with Gibran or with the messages in Rumi, or with the spiritual transports over nature in Mary Oliver might not be at all troubled by this book, except that Orr—the part of Orr that is a good poet—knows better. Inside his comfort zone (and this is definitely a comfort zone poetics for intelligent white middle class baby boomers who want to congratulate themselves on their evolved selves) there lurks a book-saving sense of affliction. This would make those who traffic in spiritual uplift fault the book. For me it is the one thing that saves The River Inside the River from bombast and the self-help section of the supermarket.

Orr’s comfort zones never succeed in being wholly comfortable. They fall apart. There is a shrillness, a shrike among the wild geese as to who is impaling the butterflies to a thorn. This is not negativity. This is the real truth teller in Orr. There is also a false “truth” teller who is a more artful version of Kung Fu .The real truth teller broaches trouble that cannot be tied up in a neat spiritual bow of epiphany and put out with the recyclables. Poets who traffic in either positive or negative energies are not often worth reading: rather, Orr, at his best, offers the sort of trouble Stephen Dunn, another wise poet, suggests we should always keep on our road to being too pleased with ourselves. But before I get to that saving grace let me quote a little from a poem in each section and tell you why it annoys the bejesus out of me:.

From the first section:

With their embrace
They chose
Each other
Which is
to choose death.

This is bad Gibran and it is faux mystical. Adam and Eve now inhabit a “choice” culture” but this choice that is death will, by the laws of yuppie epiphany, be superior to eternal life because after all, becoming is always better than being; and, in addition to choice, our culture is a sort of whore for endless flux– Faust’s striving, but with a dose of eastern equivocation to keep it from being ferocious. I’m giving these lines too much credit here. What really annoys me are the enjambments which cause a sort of stage whispery feeling, an unnecessary pause between “they chose,” and “each other”. This is language reduced to summing up, language which seeks to have no flourish except in the spaces, the caesuras of the white space which, for me, happens to often in such poetry to be effective any longer. This contrivance gives everything a falsely hollowed hush. Written out as a sentence, one can see it as a fairly plain statement:

With their embrace they chose each other which is to choose death.

I understand that, according to Harold Bloom, this is a new spiritual age in which wisdom literature is waging a comeback, but where’s the rhetorical majesty, the eloquence, the form rather than the mere information of wisdom? How do we keep a poetics of spirituality from being a fucking fortune cookie on steroids?

Anyway, that’s in section one. In section two, there is more memoir-like narrative, more Wordsworthian prelude and confession about Orr’s catastrophic origins (he accidentally shot his brother and killed him as a child). Here, one might expect the poet to fully be conscious of his era: on how we are hung up on self because we no longer really have any confidence in it. We lust for serenity because we are detached from our violence by drones, and video games, and the fact that there are always immigrants, poor whites and blacks to fight our police actions while we buy new yoga mats. Occasionally someone shoots up a school and we never tie it to ourselves. How could it be us? Unlike our parents, we don’t scream or shout. We are protected by our violence, our casual viciousness by the cult of the cool, the mellow, the politically correct the suburban disaffection. When all that fails, we go camping, and re-connect to the earth. How nice.

I have admired much of Orr’s work in the past, and I expect him to get at that fly in the soup not to spoil the soup, but to make it honest. All soups, even the soup of eternal truth contain a certain percentage of insect parts. Here, in the second section, he writes:

In the middle of my life
in the middle of the city,
I got lost.

Thanks, Mr. Divine comedy. What he says in this poem is: “you can’t count on any guides. You have to risk discoveries you can’t predict. Otherwise, you’re only half alive”.

OK…risk, choice, self, uncertainty, these are the basic wisdom tropes of the baby boomer .Generation. Generation X answers them with a sort of knowing nihilism. Generation Y embraces a sort of sociopathic code of bon homie (one of the traits of true sociopaths is a kind of easy, breezy charm and a sense of nothing personal, dude). Of course, I’m nut shelling generations, and I don’t think any of this is wholly accurate, but neither are these too easily uttered forms of wisdom. Right after this poem, Orr has a beautiful section, more ecstatic, less self consciously wise, and more surrendered to a high level of lyricism (and the image of the white flag brings that home)::

White flag
of the city–

No ensign
of surrender.

I love this. This little and perfect moment is too rare. This is cryptic and lyrical and resists the sound of the fortune cookie. As a kid, we would add “in bed” to all fortune cookie statements. Let’s apply this to my previous quotes from Orr:

In the middle of my life
in the middle of the city,
I got lost (in bed)

With their embrace
they chose
each other
which is
to choose death… (in bed)

.

I am not trying to trash Gregory Orr. I think he has written a superb body of work, and has influenced two generations of poets for the better, but this is a comforting of the already too comfortable. It has none of the ferocity, and embattled engagement with the spirit found in the best mystical and devotional traditions. The River Inside the River, while well-crafted and engaging in parts, does not have the wicked sense of humor one finds in the great midrash poems of the late and ought to be better known Enid Dame (her book Lilith and Her Demons is decidedly not preachy, though it is wonderfully wise). I am pissed off because, for a culture that says “it’s complicated” about everything (thereby dismissing all further discussion) the comfort zones of easy wisdom poetry seem as simplistic as self-help books, and the hypertrophy of telling our truths seems to have precluded the eloquence and decorative might with which we tell them. But this stuff sells, and I would not be shocked if this won some major awards. Here’s my problem with the intentional lack of eloquence: “Death be not proud, nor honor long,” has the weight of rhetorical eloquence behind it. My grandmother saying: “never marry a short man; they’re a bag full of cats,” has imagination and colorful speech behind it. If she changes that to: “It might be a mistake to marry a short man with many insecurities,” then is this really the same message? Does it have the same flavor, or sinew, or the sheer joy of the figurative behind it? Hell no. It is neutral and devoid of figures and decoration, and this might be my biggest qualm with this sort of spiritual schtick: not that its truths are too easy, but that their utterance has no spice and is as bland as a fortune cookie.

From the last section:

The beloved came,
then vanished.
Nothing beautiful stays.

Tell me why stating the obvious in incremental bits of information with the drum rolls of white space, and the caesuras of conjunctions and parataxis, makes such statements poetry? Nothing gold can stay has the glamor and eloquence of invention: nothing beautiful stays is mere statement. This third section is the best in the book because in it, Orr is most unsure of his epiphanies, and his summing up manages not to be a cozy summing up, but there is still much of this nutshelling wisdom and it creates a strange effect, the effect of a haiku master who thinks himself profound. The poems seem brief and spare, yet long winded and preachy; they seem too close to the Dali Lama’s ghostwritten self- help books, and the self-esteem movement, and forms of 12 step. If these spiritual traditions do not find themselves a meter making ground in some language tested by full aesthetic rigor and doubt beyond the obvious , then to what art do they aspire? If they aspire to the artless, they are certainly getting there.

Putting these qualms aside (and I am willing to admit that it may just be my discomfort with aphorism and my own generations love affair with its self-satisfied “seeking’) there are moments in The River Inside the River where Orr’s gentle and sad humor and his sincerity and simplicity win out. He can be wry and self-effacing, like Stephen Dunn. He can be dark when it is necessary. He can, in his love poems, give up the wise man for the ecstatic. At such moments his language seems neither derivative nor simplistic. If he did not believe his own mottos too readily, or if he arrived at them honestly (writing toward the truths, rather than the poems being excuses for the truths) I might feel better about being told “nothing lasts.” It might not bother me to be clobbered over the head with truisms along the lines “of change is the only constant”. (Orr never literally says this, but it’s one of themes of the book). I don’t mind when Whitman expounds the obvious to me. Whitman has the whole of the biblical and oratorical tradition behind him. Orr’s imaging tradition eschewed rhetoric and literary conceits over a hundred years ago– before Orr was born. It is stripped of eloquence and literary devices and often comes off as mere statement or image. If I had not read Rilke, and, yes Gibran when I was 12, and if I did not have the sonorities of the King James Bible and an entire literature of proverbs, koans, Emerson, and, on the more equivocal side, Jabez and Celan and Kafka, I might be more well-disposed to these poems. But, to me, (and I will probably get called bad names for this) the overall effect of Orr’s book is to send us back to those greater works and to anger me that the devotional poem in terms of contemporary poetics is perilously close to new age positive thinking. Telling people how to live and be at peace is a multi-billion dollar industry. Do poets have to do it?

Finally, to be fair to Orr, I grew up loving MR Cogito and the far from always wise predicaments of Paul Zimmer’s poems. I believe Orr’s tradition rules out slight-of- hand verbal tricks as being somehow phony and dishonest. Also, Orr is not a poet of rhythms. He believes in flat out telling as a test of sincerity, I take my cue from the imaginary philosopher Carlos Stir: “you can’t fake sincerity; it’s already fake.” What saves this book is the young child still at the scene of the shooting, the one who has not “learned” and for whom becoming is the only hope of escape from being. When Orr comes anywhere near this sort of “unknowing” he is a wonderful poet. Otherwise, he’s a guru, and I shoot paper clips at gurus from my desk (when they aren’t looking).

 

Even That Indigo by John Smith

John Smith has long been a poet whose work I was glad to see in some of the local New Jersey magazines, or here and there in an anthology or two. He is a narrative poet. He is far more likely to stick to the particulars of a moment and let them imply a truth or realization rather than springing a truth on you. He is less a wisdom poet in the way of Rilke and more appreciative of the minute and the perfectly observed detail in the way of Robert Francis (though he does not have Francis’ sense of form). Like Orr, he is in his sixties. Like Orr, he has some of the tendencies toward epiphany, meditative nature lyric, sex as mystery, and a touch of the new age peculiar to baby boomers. His book is not a high concept of interconnected poems. It is a collection held together by recurrent interests: his past, his family, the experience of Nam, the possibilities of finding peace within the small detailed encounters with nature. Consider his meeting up with a possum in the poem, Stumbling Around In The Light:

Something wasn’t right.
I could tell by the way it wobbled
across the lawn, midafternoon.

Fat head the cat knew it too
and kept back, pretending to lick a paw
each time the Possum stumbled.

The uncertainty is fearful uncertainty. The detail of the cat “pretending” to lick its paw is a perfect projection of the speaker’s own diffidence onto the cat. The poem moves from fearful uncertainty to conjecture (kids might come. Perhaps the speaker can kill the possum with a shovel) to a gentle and empathetic realization that, perhaps (an important word) the Possum is no more close to dying or dangerous than the speaker (the wonderful thing here is that the speaker had just considered bashing in the possum’s skull with a shovel). Stumbling Around in The Light has the close detail, and particularity, I admire in reading Carolyn Kizer’s great poem about her encounter with a bat, or

her great blue heron poem. It is working out from observation to epiphany, but the epiphany is not certain; it could be erased in the next moment. Rather than stating that everything is tentative and transient, Smith puts us in the place of the tentative and the transient.

In speaking of minor and major poets, one can either mean lesser or greater in terms of craft or make a distinction between a poet who lives for each individual poem and a poet who must be read and judged at his full scope. Smith is a minor poet in the best sense. Orr is a major poet who has some of the faults of the major: he has given up keenness for scope, and when he is not at his best, the scope is distorted for want of clarity and the keenly observed. Smith does not have to imitate Smith as Orr has to compete with Orr, and so he can screw around with different palettes, dabble at being present in different ways. John Smith is not a competing poem with John Smith’s poetry. There are thin lined, and long lined poems in Even That Indigo. There are poems that undulate and alternate between short and long lines. Smith does not have a “look.” He is not branded. The least arbitrary aspect of Smith’s line is that he either writes stichic (no stanza breaks) in the narrative style of Bishop and Levine, or he writes in stanzas of varying lengths (what Milton called Aleostrophic stanzas), and so his poems do not have a spatial identity– a fixed look. He does try a shaped poem (no title) which refers to a painting of geese by Escher. It’s not bad except it is somewhat gimmicky (I am growing cranky in my old age and have a hard time not finding almost all shaped poems gimmicky), but it is still a decent poem. This brings me to the flaws if any of this book:

Smith isn’t taking many risks beyond the well-wrought and well-crafted poem. While in depth, the poems do not go outside safe water, and stay clear from any risky currents. The crafted detail, the economical observation that implies rather than states is easier to pull off than a grand statement or a series of “wisdom” poems. For when the grand gesture fails and the mystic moments are all clichés of shadow and dark and stone and ash, then nothing is worse—nothing more worthy of contempt; but when these grand gestures are pulled off, when the mystification and rhapsody work (as with the best of Whitman, as with Neruda), then I gladly trade in my Robert Francis’ Cedar Waxwings for Whitman’s Sixth part of Song of Myself (though I may miss the waxwings). Smith’s poems in Even That Indigo are from a school closer to Waxwings than Song of Myself. It is a poetics that does not trust any major claims, that believes God is in the well wrought details. In most of his poems, Smith is a splendid successor to a long and honorable tradition of truly observing nature, an unsentimental narrative poet: Not as florid as Dickey, not as controlled and thereby heartbreaking as Bishop, not as intensely singular in his seeing as Schuyler, not as wounded or in need of embracing the wound as Orr, but with his own virtues of humility, intelligence, and singular wonder. The final poem in the book, Cicada, might give an indication as to why I would recommend Even That Indigo over Orr’s latest work (though not over Orr). I do not think Smith the greater poet, but, at this point, he does not have the weight of his oeuvre to contend with, and is thus at greater liberty to play. In this final poem in the book, Smith is saying essentially the same thing as Orr, making the same case for the eternal within the transient, for intensity, for becoming rather than being, for the joy and passion of becoming. But I believe Smith earns the epiphany. I leave you with the poem:

Even if we could live forever,
what if we still grew old and gray
as the dusk? What if we shrank
into the top soil of the night
and woke whining for the sun
with voices so shrill and small
only termites could hear them?

I’d rather crawl from the earth blindfolded
and drag my grimy shell up the side
of the whitest tree I can find,
rather scream like a match head on fire
than smolder and never die.
I would split open my spine
just to fly for one season.

In Caroline Knox’s nimble new collection Flemish, a poem entitled simply “They” begins: “They live in a mobile home/made of Adobe Caslon.” The elided antecedent here could very well be Knox’s poems; while maintaining a healthy awareness of themselves as constructed objects (“black and white graphic art,” Knox has called them), they simultaneously feel in constant, and deliriously unpredictable, motion. Vehicles, metaphoric, historical, or embroidered on pillows, abound in these poems. In “Harley Lyric”, Knox has somehow managed, with her characteristic wit, to conflate a medieval manuscript of miscellanea and the eponymous “chopper”—and with a tonal palette at once brassy and arcane. There is something playful, almost giddy, in these poems—they create the sense of setting out on a road trip, purposeless and hopeful.

Flemish is Caroline Knox’s 8th poetry collection, her third from the excellent Wave Books. This year, six of her poems were included in the second edition of the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry edited by Paul Hoover, the occasion of whose publication was recently celebrated by an epic reading by Knox and twenty three other of the most exciting poets in American letters at the New School in New York City. Although a span of continent kept me from being able to attend, the wonders of electronic mail and Caroline Knox’s generosity of spirit allowed me the privilege of a vivacious dialogue with the poet, the transcript of which follows.

SE: I want to mention first of all that Flemish is a physically beautiful object. I am fairly sure you didn’t design it, but whoever did seems to have gotten something of the spirit of the poems into the physicality of the book itself. The idea of the book, or the text, as an object, does this make sense to you in the way you think about and make poems?


photoCK
: Wave Books is adamant that their books be beautiful, and I’m so glad they are. Wave’s are all done by Quemadura, who is one poet named Jeff Clark, from Ypsilanti. The speckled white cover is recycled material, and the focus is modernistic typography. I was invited to choose end papers for Flemish (strawberry). (But I do like very much Wave’s emphasis on doing a great deal of its work online, on its website and in social media, even though it publishes hold-in-your-hand books, not ebooks. This is in tune with the excellent goal of parity between print and online works.)

My great aunt was a college librarian, and I spent a lot of time with her when I was in school. She was connected with the Arts and Crafts movement, with book designers and typographers, so I got a good look at all that thinking and making. And a respect for it.

 

SE: I was excited to come upon Francis Ponge’s cameo in “Stove Seasoning”–you call him, aptly, “an advocate for things”. He is one of my favorite poets, and rarely does he get much mention. I would guess that you are also an “advocate for things”, but the relationship you engender to the “objectified” is much more complex, I think, more nuanced. I think of Ponge as something like a lepidopterist, pinning the objects down with words.; whereas, in your poems, the words seems to hover about the objects, or the other way around. It’s like a dance. So can you talk a little about how objects make their way into your poems, and what you do with them there?

 

CK: Ponge’s thing poems seem like short art history essays defining the thing. He is like a lepidopterist. Maybe I’d try to approach the thing from a lot of angles, trying to obey Stevens: Constantly see the world in a new way, and It Must Change. (So style is what changes it, if you can get the right style.) I’d like not to be bound by any diction level or syntax while I wrote about the object, so that my poems about objects or about anything else, could try to have a changing and changeable kind of beauty, changeant.

In “He Paves the Road with Iron Bars,” (Verse Press) I was trying to do something like this. We think of Emerson as singlehandedly inventing a new philosophy rising above the material. But he loved stuff, and was enchanted by the railroad. (It has such great shop talk.) I love Emerson, who changed the language with the marmoreal paragraphs, but also, oh, the material world! And I think the language of jobs is so interesting as a lexical source for poems. Maybe especially if you don’t know the mysteries of other people’s jobs.

 

SE: Something that struck me in many of the poems in Flemish was the juxtaposition of the long-lived, if not to say eternal, and the ephemeral–a Carrara marble font full of construction paper fish, a mobile home made of Adobe Caslon. Your poems often have this quality of being at once solid, etched, and as slippery as one of the sloe-eyed dolphins in “Subjects”. How does time figure into your poems, and into your use of language?

 

CK: I thought in my youth that I would become a medievalist (which didn’t happen), so I was drawn early to languages then taught – French, Latin, Old English – so I keep (fragments of) these in my head. I don’t see why they shouldn’t show up in poems occasionally to give some sense and some beautiful or at least interesting sound.

I feel drawn to switches in diction levels and in syntax, no matter what the poem subject. It feels inclusive. I think I learned this from Auden, and from the New York Poets John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch. Stevens and Ashbery often appear to qualify or as some say “cancel” their statements. I think that’s hugely interesting, and the switches can make it happen. Valley Girl talk might be another good lexical source. My son-in-law’s aviation magazines are, too – “docile stall characteristics/ and retrofit fuselage utilizing/ a semi-monocoque construction” (“Who’ll Buy,” Quaker Guns).

SE: Speaking of Auden, in an essay you wrote about how he has influenced your work, you describe his syntax as sounding almost as if it were English in translation. Even better, you described it as “slightly cracked”. This phrase works perfectly with the poems in Flemish, and in your other books as well. The language is recognizable, but, yes, slightly cracked. Is this something that you are consciously pursuing in the act of writing, this feeling of translation?

CK: First, I want to point out that in the section of the essay “2. Syntax” that I’m talking here just about the poem “1929.” I don’t think that Auden did this kind of “crackedness” or distortion often. I think he was experimenting with it, enjoying it probably, in this investigative poem. The crackedness suits the theme of exploration and discovery. The crackedness or translatedness helps deliver the anxiety!

And I definitely feel influenced by Auden’s experiment – to distort the language slightly, making it as you say recognizable but slightly cracked. (No one would want to do this ALL the time – it would be mannered and boring.) Yes, as you say, I do want to make my poems in Flemish as elsewhere sound slightly translated from Eng to Eng – a lot of the time but not all the time.

 

SE: In “He Lives in Bayonne”, “he” emails a blank screen; in response, “she” emails him her trash icon. These lines are very funny, and that is at least partly because they communicate something that we somehow understand, and yet it is in a language in which we are not quite fluent yet. Can you talk about how things like the Internet and texting, which are certainly altering not just our language but even, so they say, our brains, have changed your writing?

CK: I admire so much a book by Janet Holmes called f2f –it is ALL in texting, how charming, what a tour-de-force. Language certainly will gradually absorb the new technology, won’t it? It certainly has begun to.

I guess that collecting fragments – words and phrases – has a whole lot to do with method (I suppose all writers do this). It’s inductive.

One more point about the New York Poets – I think their interaction with abstract painters and painting made me want to situate on the page a lot of elements that don’t necessarily belong together, but might complement or clash with one another – this goes along with picking words and phrases that don’t belong together. The surface of the poem should offer a lot of interesting elements. It has to be done without sounding showoffy or bathetic.

SE: In the Auden essay you liken the speaker in one of your poems to a pilgrim. I loved this idea–because often the poems seem like pilgrimages through the landscape of our shared language. Does the speaker come out of the language for you, or does the language arise out of a certain stance that the speaker has adopted towards the material? Or some of both?

CK: I was talking about a sort of pilgrim narrator in “Souvenir de Roc-Amadour” because pilgrims do go there, and because I was writing a poem – since poets are always pilgrims during the writing process of the poem, wondering whether it’s going to pan out into anything, or into something you can put your name to.

The speaker in any poem has to come out of the language, and also the language comes out of the speaker – both of these, just as you say. Isn’t it a balancing act; you have to do both at once, and remember what you’re doing. It’s dangerous and exciting and you don’t want to wreck something good that’s half done. The speaker has to change all the time! In “Boiled Snow,” the person who says, “A distinctive new gelato” is not the same kid who says “Flavor of the Month for March!”

 

SE: Something I have noted before about all of your poems, and these new ones perhaps even more, is that they are completely unpredictable–there is simply no telling where a poem will end up from first line to last, and every move in between surprises. You have a startling array of nouns at your disposal, and do wonderfully unexpected things with prepositions, not to mention pronouns. But there are, it turns out, far fewer verbs than one would expect in such dynamic poems. I have often felt that English was a language somewhat deficient in the verb department…can you shed some light on how you create movement in your poems, what propels them forward?

 

CK: I don’t know where the poems are going myself.

As well as the New York Poets, Marianne Moore often does not come back to her beginnings, to a subject or a statement. I always liked that; it’s daring.

Examples from two poems from Flemish: in a poem called “Key,” I wrote, “You can knit direct from a photograph, it’s like an atlas.” The directions are supposed to help, but they didn’t – and then the photo made everything instantly clear! Who could have predicted this?

Comedy rests on unpredictability; we expect x, but we get y. Our expectations are upset, and we burst out laughing; that’s the recipe for comedy, isn’t it? So if you can choose the right x and y, you give delight, or puzzlement, or slight awe. In “Harley Lyric,” I was so stunned by these two facts: 1. BL Harley MS 2253 = a collection of top-drawer love lyrics, 14th-15thc. 2. Harley motorcycle. The ms. ref. sounds like a motorcycle model! The first lines of the poems sound like biker songs! Koch said of his and Ashbery’s and O’Hara’s work, “We didn’t see any reason to avoid humor.”

Another example: it may be funny to put your dogs’ names, “Wuffy” and “Chips,” in double quotes – are the dogs really named Rex and Fido? But sometimes the unpredictable isn’t funny or important – it’s just believable. It doesn’t prove anything or lead to anything, so it must be there for its own sake, and the moment fulfills itself. In my book Nine Worthies, somebody’s little brother tells at some length to a room full of grownups all about shad and shad roe and shadbush. The people sit and listen. That’s all there is to it.

You can also plan the appearance of unpredictability. Right now I’m writing a sestina which tries to obscure the fact that it is one, though a lot of internal rhyme and other distractions.

 

SE: It seems that form allows you to make poetry out of the material of the everyday—not “poeticized” but direct—the language simply lifted directly from the vernacular but “lifted into art” through the form in which it might be re-experienced. Can you say a bit about your use of forms, especially traditional ones, in Flemish?

 

CK: The traditional forms I use in Flemish are (upon reflection) these: tercets, libretto (including a sonnet of sorts), (short) prose poems, song. I don’t obey the forms very strictly. To use a form, with all its expectations, creates a place to upset those expectations, usually only slightly.

Tercets seem comfortable for the writer to ease into; they have a leisurely and even meditative feel and look, I think. In Flemish there turned out to be four poems in tercets: “He Was a Chartist.” “Stove Seasoning,” “They,” and “The Font.” (I’d like to be able to do such a poem that went on for pages.) The small and regular-looking stanzas allow you to put in some surprise material for contrast. The stanzas look like strung beads, and maybe act like them.

Cantata libretto: I adapted the libretto (by Picander) of Bach’s Coffee Cantata very, very loosely. It was a game and a dream at the same time. I wanted it to be too short, and it was. I wanted it to be full of notes of today – the wedding nonsense, the Starbucks nonsense, the poetry reading of opaque work.

Short prose poem: “Key” and “The Scottish Play” seem to be nuggets of wisdom, definitive blocks on their subjects – but they really don’t do the reader any good! They’re probably just an excuse for playing with language, a valuable activity in itself. “The Scottish play” is a nickname for Macbeth, but using it as a title turns out to be thoroughly pretentious, and nothing to do with the poem, really, just a way into it.

About “Key” – The bold face section of “Key” is one of Poor Richard’s sayings, one of Franklin’s “scriptures,” made into the shape of a key. Quemadura graciously spent a lot of time on typesetting this! The proverb is hidden in plain sight. But there’s no key to “Key.”

Song – “Aragon” seems to be an elegiac piece (a “fragment”?); when I wrote it I remember being very interested in sound, and in putting the French refrain in as a piece of folk poetry that someone else learned from someone else. (You can’t do this too much – it gets too adorably precious.) Maybe the speaker is a pilgrim – to Santiago da Campostela?

So, to sum up, I think one of the reasons to use any traditional form is to introduce surprise material into the form, surprise material that sits comfortably with the form’s other aspects.

To drink boiled snow

To drink boiled snow is good science.
It may affect the water table
to manufacture boiled snow on the rocks
218º Fahrenheit for however many minutes.

To skate on black ice is hard science
looking down through it to a broken and frozen rowboat
six feet under in Davy Jones’s Locker
in black tie in the middle of the night,

walking on thin ice, to skate on the
leading edge of thin ice, as abraded maple
leaves’ patterns trip you up.  To drink
unboiled sap as the deer do, clandestinely

out of sap buckets, starting on Birthington’s Washday;
to discover in frozen sap
a distinctive new gelato!  Flavor
of the Month for March!  To write

most of a poem out of
infinitive clauses, to discover
in brackish tidepools much too early
harbor seals in camouflage on the rocks,

and to marvel at these seals’ poise and grace
as they blunder diffidently into and under the ocean.

ISBN978-0520259263

It’s hard to justify a $50 book nowadays. Unless you’re a scholar looking to pore over every character in an author’s archive, a volume of collected work can easily overwhelm. Is there a non-academic audience for a tome like The Collected Early Poems and Plays by Robert Duncan (University of California Press)? I can’t speak for the market, but as a young poet scrambling through the poems of the past, as well as the growing morass of contemporary offerings, I finished this beast of a volume feeling refreshed.

It’s clear that UC Press has a plan for Duncan’s collected works, which are stylistically in tune with The H.D. Book. While poems often share pages, pages rarely feel overwhelmed. Economy of space is understood. This book feels like a chronological collection of published and uncollected works, so we are given a particularly instructive timeline of Duncan’s growth as a poet.

The breadth of that poetic growth is in itself a fantastic teacher. Duncan burst out of the gates hungry, publishing as an undergrad beginning to engage with the politics and metaphysics he would engage with throughout his career. But his line is inquisitive rather than didactic; he chose not to build a pulpit, but to immerse the reader in his investigations. The Years as Catches then shows, if anything, that all poets must start somewhere, and it’s comforting to see the seeds from which Duncan’s poetic dexterity would grow, while at the same time appreciating that this is the work of a young man with much to learn. In every stanza, his potential glimmers: an inexperienced poet, winding his way through language until his own voice emerges.

It does so quickly, as Heavenly City, Earthly City slips into the picture and Duncan more fully embraces his political opinions. His voice takes shape, as does the melody within his lines, and, along with the poet, we learn the strength of verse as a spoken activity. Melodious, rhythmic, and willing to take risks linguistically and stylistically, the book moves into Medieval Scenes with the assuredness of a man who more fully finds his footing after every line.

Duncan—and by extension this volume—really begins to shine with A Book of Resemblances. The strength of this book, and the argument for the price tag, is not only the accessibility of all of Duncan’s work between two covers, but the process of working along with the poet as he searches for his ultimate expression. He earns the poems in Resemblances, which sing and swell and traverse emotional and metaphysical landscapes. But these poems were not born out of a black hole. Duncan climbs to this height, and ever higher, throughout these pages and those in the next volume. The true joy in reading a poet like this is the journey. Duncan walks with Pound, Williams, and Stein as influences, wearing them proudly on his poetic and fanciful flights through drama and poetry. If ever there was an argument for an oeuvre, this is it.

emily-vogel-2

Poems are “instruments for thinking” (Allen Grossman). The object of a poet’s thought, however, is often unstated–especially in lyric poetry. Lyric poetry never speaks to an audience, and so–as it is when we are alone–the speaker does not feel compelled to explicitly state the object of thought but only the thoughts themselves. In this review, I want to try and discern these objects of thought in the works of two poets whose work seem directed at resolving particularly spiritual problems.

***

diatomhero

diatomhero: religious poems

The primary question about Lisa A Flowers’ work is this: What spiritual universe does her poetry inhabit? What are its rules and how do those govern the assumptions and hence possibilities/ambitions of her work?

It seems to be a world in which incarnation is the rule, and yet there is also a kind of Heaven and Hell–locations that suggest some kind of finality. The figure of Justice speaks in one poem:

“…the Lord just takes all those who have died that day and consumes them.

The good ones are absorbed into His system,

And the bad ones pass right through it

And drop out into Hell,

Which is situated conveniently beneath Him as a toilet.

Some think they’re getting away because they’ve existed

Inside the camera of the body for so long.”

Heaven, here, I can understand as the escape of Nirvana, but not Hell–unless Hell is the earth, which I suspect is the case. What is the nature of this incarnation then? The images of the poems are constantly morphing, yet the syntax suggests stasis: it’s possible to go many lines without encountering an independent clause. Even flesh itself undergoes a kind of reincarnation.

But more importantly, I suspect that reincarnation is itself a kind of metaphor for dualism: mind-body, but also the dualism of one’s inner spiritual conflict. Reincarnation seems to be an image of the trauma of thwarted spiritual aspirations. The most compelling image of this metaphor is the “Rorschach” (from a poem of that title):

I was two places at once:

One side of my body bleeding indistinguishably into

Oneness, like an inkblot,

The other sketching the actual picture,

Past and present lives

Back to back, in a Star Wars trash compactor.

After awhile I opened my napkin and recognized myselves:

Two Versailles rivals turning fans to each other’s disdain,

A flattened hydra peeling itself off a window,

“Beast turning human,” like Nora Flood’s lover.

I think trauma is the right word. Reincarnation, though natural, seems to be a constant tearing, disorientation–a surprisingly appropriate metaphor for the self of modern poetics.

This raises some more questions for me about Lisa’s work: What is the relationship between trauma and time, between trauma and eternity? If trauma can stretch across eternity, then it is a fundamental aspect of the self. It seems to me that this is the question Flowers’ writing attempts to answer; it is this conflict that she aspires to resolve.

***

AC_Digressions

Digressions on God

The title of Emily’s chapbook is utterly perfect for these poems. “Digression” is almost a sustained method. One line in particular captures this movement:

Today I will have a conference with God,

And then I will boil a potato.

Many (not all) of the poems begin in an abstract thought on God or theology and eventually unwinds into an indiscernible particularity of Vogel’s everyday life. For instance, Vogel often addresses a “you” without any qualification–a figure made poetically inscrutable by the particularity of reference.

As readers, we are quite used to the opposite model–the upward aim–its firm entrenchment in Romantic poetry, especially. Vogel’s poetry is deliberately “downward aimed”; in this sense, the chapbook’s dedication–”In honor of the Holy Spirit”–is entirely appropriate as the Holy Spirit is God’s outpouring upon the world. This chapbook is not about man’s ascent to God, but God’s descent upon, His digression on man.

So what are the spiritual aspirations of Vogel’s poems? I think Vogel states it fairly directly in her poem “Exile” when she says

One must find the most reasonable solution

to the problem of despair.

One must come to some conclusion about God

without upsetting

the order of ordinary miracles.

What is the spiritual universe of Vogel? In her poems, this problem of despair is the abstract, where the idea of good can overwhelm the good, yet it is enmeshed and arises in daily-ness:

I am not, like a Poet, walking alone on the street,

reovering lost memories in the stench

of fih markets, finding hidden meaning

in a city train.

I am consoling your busted heart

in a desperate attempt to dispel the terrible Pride

which plagues my spirit. I am mad

with the desire to go mad with desire.

Yet final line contains a conundrum, and I believe it is aspiration of these poems to resolve this conundrum: “desire” is used in both its senses here–both abstract (“the desire to go mad”) and particular (“with desire” for the particular “you”). Vogel attempts to rectify both these senses of language by means of her digressions.

The Eggshell Parade brings you an interview with poet Joe Weil.

http://archive.org/download/JoeWeilEggshellParadeInterview/JoeWeilMixdown.mp3

tarot pic

JH: Congratulations on your first book diatomhero: religious poems. I treasure how this poetry holds every religion responsible for being authentic and explores exactly what kind of turmoil/freedom of movement (of creed, language, time, space) arises in such a busy atmosphere.

I’m thinking specifically of Christianity’s notion of finite resting places (blazing hot or room-temperature) teamed with Buddhist/Hindu reincarnation notions and Greek polytheistic elements. The book is a cream vichyssoise where these ingredients are available to be salted, peppered, and consumed. Could you talk a little about how the book is and is not a supplement to all religious texts?

LF: I love the word ‘vichyssoise’. It’s blonde as a Gibson girl in a mint satin evening gown, as per the synesthetic-green letter ‘V’. Definitely a word with the curls of the sun.

The title, diatomhero, is an anagram of the bible’s “I am the door”, a statement that comes full circle in the book’s final image, and applies just as much to Christ as it does to Janus. To open the doors of all myths and religions, to ‘let’ their darkness, (un)like bloodletting. At the end of the book, when Bluebeard’s chamber is opened, there’s not slaughtered women hanging on hooks, but far fields stretching out—a wide open country to fly out into ecstatically, like a heavy symphony unlocking its heavy doors and letting itself out of itself in its final movement. As opposed, for example, to a story like Poe’s Red Death, that ends walled inexorably up in its own terror. I’m not talking about imposing one’s own will against the will of the muse/work itself, or about ‘revisionism’ or ‘escapism’, but about a deliverance seductive enough to embed itself in the text without compromising it. Like Tangina in Poltergeist saying, “this house is clean”, only it’s “this myth is clean”… but with no tricks to follow.

A supplement is a continuation. The question is whether the myth is on a blind loop, or if it’s aware of intrusions. If we took the story of Princess Thermuthis finding the infant Moses among the reeds, but put the river hag Jenny Greenteeth in his place, what would that have done to the evolution of Christianity? If Hera had given birth to Christ; if Mary had found herself with Zeus’ child, because he came to her in one of his characteristic disguises, as he came to Danae as golden rain, etc. These combinations can be perverse and amusing or they can be profound: Ariarhod and Christ falling in love, and Christ finding, in love for her, a new world outside Christianity—like Cortez, or like the iconic awe of someone who’s never left the heartland seeing the sea for the first time. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen describes a relationship as being like a shark that has to keep moving forward or it will die—so we can apply that to myth, and of course to the myth of the dying god. If the inhabitants of a myth found themselves on a dying planet—a planet that was, of course, the myth itself—they would have to evacuate, to look for a new life in another legend. In somewhat of the same spirit, then, immigrants—drifters—from other afterlives appear as migrant workers in the Elysian Fields.
Theoretically, too, the book is written for synesthetes. And, as such, is ideally meant to be seen  through synesthesia, like 3-D films are meant to be seen through 3-D glasses. And this is where  the mythological blending/puree meets an ideal medium, because of course the synesthesete  already has a sense of the dis/harmony of totally “unrelated” things—which are not really  unrelated at all. So essentially the book is a preliminary study of synesthesia as myth and religion. I say “preliminary” because I’ve not gone near as far with this concept as I want to.  diatomhero is an incomplete book, and it’s a work in progress, as all poems are. It plays with the  “worlds colliding” theme, which a lot of people have of course played with, but I would like to think/hope (?) it does it in a unique way.

JH: The play turned-compact long poem makes for a jarring opening sequence which describes a  manufacturing plant for souls and bodies. I love how this really kicks out the chairs from under  the audience from the beginning. Readers must navigate the balance between the playful and the  scarier. Everything familiar remains in the ball room but it’s simply misplaced, like hearing your  favorite childhood song performed by a band of Gorgons on a harp strung with your mother’s  funeral hair-do. The willingness to travel these fissures is crucial to enjoying the poems. Was  there a purposeful attempt in these afterlife sequences to balance nostalgic memory with what  are undeniably horrifying dream elements?

LF: I love that Gorgon/funeral hair juxtaposition, and I love this question. I think nostalgia, or  merely fantasy, is a natural retreat in times of trauma. But—again with the deliverance premise—  there’s the idea that a dream is an innocent desperately trying to communicate its plight through  a nightmare, rather like what happens at the very moving end of the Spanish horror film The  Orphanage. Variations of this concept have often been explored in Grimm and Perrault, et al. The innocent as needing help in being extracted from the context of a nightmare, but being unable to tell anyone how to do help them. The imprisoned who have to be saved by the freer being virtuous (Beauty and the Beast), or by sheer chance (The Frog Prince.) It’s up to the rescuer to figure out the riddle. And this is perfectly apropos because it is, of course, how the process of wisdom actually works. However, diatomhero is not about being rescued, but about being resourceful enough to rescue yourself. And about the arc as rescue, the underside of the arc that will return you to its exact opposite: a divine inevitability, a point beyond which the absence of good becomes so acute that the reality of its difference from evil is unmistakable, and no longer philosophically debatable. This, to put in the simplest terms, is salvation by default. And it takes us to a quote by Djuna Barnes, one of the most beautiful quotes of all, which I used as one of diatomhero’s epigraphs: ‘the unendurable is the beginning of the curve of joy’. I had a dream once that someone gave me that quote—the quote itself, in words—encased in an 80s style/Desperately Seeking Susanish jelly bracelet. That was the way that particular observation presented the true genius of itself to me—by literalizing itself.

djuna

JH: Emere’s Tobacconist is noted as having been originally constructed as a ten-act minimalist play, a whittling down that resulted in many sleepless nights. What sections did you extract and do you plan on producing it as theater in the future?

LF: I’m still negotiating the technicalities of the staging (and by “negotiating” I mean going over it in my own head, because nothing is on the table right now as far as production goes). Most of the acts are in fact truncated. The car accident victim who sees the bloody windshield of his car turned to a red stained glass window as he enters paradise reappears; in the extended scene Marc Chagall is there, having been commissioned to render the last earthly memory of the man into something sublime. So the rest of that scene is dialogue between those two men. There’s a monologue by Shura, the daughter of Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill, in which Shura enters—and goes wandering around—the childhood memories of the woman who found her dead and tried to revive her. There’s the blood of the slain turning white socks pink in heaven’s washing machine. There’s more Huck Finnish adventures down the river with John and Pearl in Night of the Hunter, in which they meet all kinds of water myths, and stories, like Ophelia and the singing head of Orpheus.

JH: Readers will invariably focus on myth and doctrine. I see those elements more like background music. They also aren’t meant to represent what they historically or even physically represent, as when somebody in your afternoon nap hands you a fork with no food on it and you thank him and simply eat the fork, which tastes like Special K (the cereal). I also noticed a kind of Confessional coming-of-age Bildungsroman fable (The subsequent 1000 odd color photos of the rest of your life) working in this collection. It may be beside the point, but could you address some of the “real-life” challenges you may have been facing that sub-atomically got engrained in the white spaces between the ink?

LF: Dadaberry Crunch! (Why didn’t Wonka invent the Dadaberry?).

The writing of diatomhero, in tandem with several events, was accompanied the realization that there’s no such thing as “odds”, because something is only randomly likely or unlikely to happen until it happens to someone you love or to you. The concept of likelihood or unlikelihood is a consolation device—and a privilege. This has probably been common knowledge to enlightened people for centuries, but I didn’t always know it. I used to feel that there was a difference between myself and someone who had died. I don’t anymore. That’s not a fatalistic statement, it’s a statement of gratitude, because gratitude is about recognizing randomness as much as it is about celebrating and honoring blessings—because life and existence are joys to be celebrated and honored, not because you’ve made it out of the hole thus far. One of the final images in Rorschach came from attending a dear friend of mine’s viewing. Some weeks later, I had a nightmare of her on the embalming table. But it ended with her zodiac sign (Cancer) leaving her body like a crab and scuttling off into the ocean. And then the crab ended up on the shore of the Riviera, in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, and climbed out onto the shore of that film, and her birthday (the 4th of July) fused with that film’s iconic fireworks scene. The nightmare had outsmarted itself and become an act of escape, of transfiguration.

catch a thief

JH: What classic cinema made this collection possible?

LF: I didn’t even come close to honoring the great religious films, like Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent and Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, though their spirit was very much an inspiration. Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. Scads of films that weren’t mentioned in the appendix. Carnival of Souls. The Virgin Spring. There are so many it would take far too long to try to list them. David Lynch’s work is always in me, like a kind of libido. Inland Empire. Children’s films that deeply affected me as a child, and that I vividly remember seeing on the big screen, are certainly in there, at least in spirit. Watership Down. The Last Unicorn. Fantasia. A huge influence that wasn’t cited was Kubrick’s 2001…the line “his life wrenched out of him like a discus/that goes flailing off to the Lord” was more or less directly inspired by the iconic bone-toss scene in that film. And the monolith scene at the end, in the marble mansion, with the sound of ancient man echoing through the hallways…right outside, like the tinkling distant sound of an orchestra would be audible throughout the halls of Gatsby’s mansion. That is beyond genius. It has never been equaled in film. Echoing because time has collapsed, and the dawn of humankind is now in the next room on the other side of the wall. Then the water imagery in the last scene of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible—one of the most horrific and unwatchable of films, with the most beautiful ending–appeared, with its flashing space-time continuum, and the sprinkler system in that last shot that the children are gallivanting around fused with the Greek myth of Arethusa and Alpheus, united forevermore in the fountain. And of course the sprinkler system is also the biblical fountain, the fountain of youth, the godhead.

irreversible-1

JH: Much has transpired when we reach the opposing Pioneers, yet I consider each essential bridge poems. The first considers the 19th century practice of daguerreotyping a dead child. Following the action in the previous sections, this is the first moment in the book that considers death may be an insipid motionless activity after all. Everything moves in the room with the dead person except the dead person. The second poem, however, maintains hope the mind of a shooting victim post-mortem is still very busy. I like how you give a little credence of the dead body, but ultimately have to ignore it. Do you feel society is too transfixed of physical aspects of being dead (and alive) and probably misses the exciting stuff?

LF: I think I’m too transfixed with it. As, of course society is and has been, down through the ages. Memento Mori. “Everything moves with the dead person except the dead person”…this is a brilliant question and a brilliantly worded question. I kept studying these Victorian daguerreotypes of people who had been photographed—right after they had died—with their eyes open. They had what Dickinson called “the distance/on the look of death” but it’s a distance that has also evaporated in itself mid-flight because the soul has left faster than the eyes can process the recognition of its leaving. You can see the same thing in some of Andres Serrano’s corpse photographs… an almost polite suspension in the eyes. There’s that soon-to-diminish flashbulb-brightness that’s always there, of course, but what we’re looking at is actually a stunned rapidity of departure. It’s not death that’s an insipid motionless activity, but the ‘politeness’ of the corpse itself, in its waiting for others to try to process it. I saw it as a taut bladder, like someone wanting to piss into salvation but holding it out of consideration for their loved ones/mourners, but after awhile they can’t hold it anymore, and their soul is starting to trickle out and piss itself. But they’re trembling, and their muscles are beginning to shake, and all sorts of things are starting to ‘fall’ out of their eyes… like the spider that appears, falling, gaping out of the eyes of the deceased, and falling out into the mourners, like all sorts of abominations and precious things, because the mind of the deceased is emptying into the beyond. The soul is being as courteous as it can for as long as it can, despite the fact that it is becoming more and more dazzled and seduced by the journey that’s now before it. But there is something gigantic starting to whoosh through the eyes, something massive, like a tsunami, and eventually that tsunami will flow out into pure light, into pure white water rapids.

The second Pioneers was inspired by an image on the Inland Empire deleted scenes disc (in fact, it was originally titled Inland Empire Deleted Scenes Disc, 16:36-11:06). The scene was a sequence of dulled, exploding lights that looked exactly like what someone who’d been shot in the back of the head while watching fireworks would have seen in their final moments. (And, interestingly, Lynch and the singer Moby do have a collaboration out called Shot in the Back of the Head, but it was post IE). The light slowed and imprinted, and it was as if part of American history itself had been shot, and was having a “life review” right up to the coast of the Atlantic, beyond which was England. The covered wagons had cycled back as far as they could go, and the holiday was flashing backwards into extinction.

diatomhero

JH: Mt. Fuji, Eden, Long Beach, Catalina, Tropic of Cancer, Scotland, Los Angeles, the Chesapeake Bay, Egypt, Sodom, Texas) are more memories than locations. There are also many instances where the speaker is making the most of bilocation. I’ll never forget when my old science teacher Mr. Jackson asked the PTA meeting “What if the human eyeballs are facing inward and we’re all looking at the backs of our own skulls? Please feel free to grab a Little Debbie cake at the exit doors. Watching you all eat makes me hungry.” How might diatomhero comfort Mr. Jackson?

LF: Mr. Jackson was obviously a genius. He reminds me of Jake Tucker, that character on Family Guy with the upside-down face, saying to Meg: “maybe someday we can get married, and you can go up on me”. The bilocation is toss-up, actually. Obviously LA, the Rockies, the Chesapeake Bay—all places or features of places I’ve actually lived—are drawn from real life, though very little in the book can be said to be autobiographical, in the linear sense. Most of the places mentioned simply presented themselves.

JH: Robert Duncan occasionally included fun characters into his dramatic verse: First Beloved, Queen Under The Hill. You too bring stock characters to life in diatomhero. Could you provide some gossip on the following funky bunch: Peg Powler, Willa Harper’s children, Old Man Bickle, Madame DuBois, Mike Teavee? I’m especially fond of Old Man Bickle. His farm is mentioned during your rabbit reincarnation stage.

LF: I’ve discussed Peg, aka Jenny Greenteeth, and Willa Harper’s children (Night of the Hunter). Old Man Bickle just appeared, though I suppose I must have been thinking of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. I think Travis would have been quite at home in this book; he’s not as far from it as he might seem to be. Madame DuBois just appeared. I have no clue who she is. And Mike Teavee, of course is the prodigal son of Wonkavision. In another poem (in the new book) there are souls that get churned up the blades of the Fizzy Lifting room, because, unlike Grandpa Joe and Charlie, they’ve not learned how to belch, or are unable to—the afterlife is full of hazards, after all.

JH: As a poet who plays with myth also, I’m consistently impressed by this work’s ability to incorporate myth without the reader needing to arrive at your text versed in that myth necessarily. In other words, you achieve equilibrium between the secular and the psychopomp. How did you check that balance while writing this?

LF: Thank you—that’s one of the greatest compliments I’ve received about the book. I’m glad it comes across that way, because I of course have no way of knowing how it’s coming across to anybody. I personally think that my poetry is wide open. There may be some relatively obscure references here and there and stuff, but I don’t think they really interrupt anything (I hope). What I really want is to create an images playground. Anyone can get something out of an image. Like being a kid at Disneyland, and riding Small World and being transfixed with wonder (rather than being consumed with wondering how the ride is mechanically engineered, like all those colorless and usually talentless academic critics with their obsession with “structure” are—as if an artist is incapable of writing a poem outside the “rules”; eg, the rigor of an institutional body brace and the breadth of geisha steps. The first rule of Fight Club is “joyless”, they might say). However, this book is also a form of warfare, to me– against the time-space continuum trapping us, against mortality physically aging us against our own evolution and wisdom. diatomhero is critical thinking transmogrified into the imaginative. It is a book of strategy. Not, I repeat, escapism.

But back to the joy of images unto themselves. I loved what you said, awhile back, about Robert Desnos’s poetry feeling like the ball pit at Chuck-E-Cheese. That was such a marvelous observation, just beautiful, and a wonderful description of a triumphant legacy. We all know how terribly Desnos died. But he won, and his readers are still jumping into the ball pit.

desnos

JH: Will your second book of poems be similar or different from diatomhero? A bastard cousin perhaps? Where’s the next path of Pane di Altamura breadcrumbs for Lisa A. Flowers lead?

LF: I’m working on a surrealist study of early childhood now, and I’m loving it, and loving the process of trying to remember the way children (I) saw things before they were literalized or contrasted. I am also doing a series of reverse tone-poems, transcribing images from Schubert to Arvo Part to Krzysztof Penderecki. These range from the delightful “transcribing” Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite—I don’t mean its actual story, but the images it gave me—was wonderful, like revisiting my early childhood. By contrast, transcribing Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima was obviously very dark. This transcription method was interesting because I would program in symphonies and just shift from, say, Pachelbel’s Canon into Penderecki, and the poetry would change instantly, be violently ripped out of itself into another image, with no warning. The poem would plunge sickeningly, like a heart monitor reflecting someone who had just had a massive and unexpected adrenaline dump. It was as if images from the Canon had been catapulted through the ceiling in a violent earthquake, and were lying dazed on the floor of the Penderecki apartment below, completely unaware of what had just happened. It also went the other way: going from Penderecki into the second movement of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto was like the train murder scene in Fire Walk With Me, when the angel suddenly appears to Ronette Pulaski and the screaming and the horror simply disappears into the holy silence of light, out of time. There’s more synesthesia going on in this book, too. And, I suppose, more films throwing their images into other contexts, though I’m not going to keep repeating the same theme ad infinitum—my hope is simply to keep catching images worth keeping. And I remain enchanted with something Werner Herzog said about the highest, most exalted points of the creative process, and its results: “there’s very rare moments where I get the feeling sometimes I’m like the little girl in the fairy tale who steps out into the night, in the stars, and she holds her apron open, and the stars are raining into her apron. Those moments I have seen and I have had. But they are very rare.”

_________________________________________________________________________

Lisa A. Flowers is a poet, critic, vocalist, cinephile, ailurophile, and the founding editor of Vulgar Marsala Press. Her poetry has appeared in The Cortland Review, elimae, and other magazines and online journals. She is the author of diatomhero: religious poems. Visit her personal website here.

 

The Eggshell Parade brings you Connor Syrewicz reading (an edited-to-meet-FCC-regulations version of) his short story “Tomorrow ‘Dun Gone”, which appears in Issue 9 Spring 2012 of Superstition Review.

 

http://archive.org/download/ConnorSyrewiczTomorrowDunGone/ConnorSyrewiczReadHisPeaceTomorrowDunGone.mp3

The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from poet Emily Vogel.

http://archive.org/download/InterviewWithPoetEmilyVogel/EditedInterviewWithEmilyVogel.mp3

The Eggshell Parade brings you an interview with writer Minrose Gwin.

 

http://archive.org/download/MinroseGwinInterviewEggshellParade/MinroseGwinPhoneInterviewSession_mixdown.mp3

The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from writer Catherine Lacey. Catherine reads her short fiction piece “(Grew),” which appears in issue 12.3 of DIAGRAM.

http://ia601509.us.archive.org/19/items/CatherineLaceyReadingAndInterview/LACEY.mp3

The Eggshell Parade brings you a The Noisy Reading Series reading and interview from poet Katharine Coles. Katharine reads her poem “Tempo for a Winged Instrument,” which appears in the July/August 2012 issue of Poetry.

http://archive.org/download/KatharineColesTnrsReadingAndInterview/KatharineColesTnrsReadingAndInt.mp3

Alfred Corn’s recently published tenth book of poems Tables is charming, confident, polished, ambitious, learned, elegiac, plus playful too, which makes the slim volume very seductive, poignant, intelligent, self-conscious, deeply-nerved and rooted; succinctly: humane. Tables brims over with both the visual and aural surprises we ought to expect from any and all great poetry, except here these serve Art and Humanity, not preachily, but indirectly, for the poet seems to be processing and re-processing both lived and creative experience for himself and us. A quick, direct listening in to this theme of re-processing can be found, for example, in these lines from his “Letter to Pinsky”: “…sheer chance/Which governs half of what turns out to happen/Can feel in retrospect like Destiny.”

Tables proves a raw, every-which-way roaming collection, an enterprise in full creative recall and exposure. Not only do we meet historical people here (Anthony of the Desert, Hadrian, Audubon, Brodsky), but also some related to the poet (Corn’s father, mother, grandmother, Pinsky, Hacker, Fenton, etc.), as well as some convincing shades of people affected by both personal and broader circumstances, like the imagined “senior chef” prepping bread in one of the towers on 9/11 in “Window On the World” and the “Unknown Soldier” who trails off by saying, “From nil and dark the self I knew calls out/For the small tag love once attached me to” in “From the Prompter’s Box.” The endeavor in Tables and its accomplishment/s are truly Dantean.

Corn’s latest poems consequently say there is no way through both the real and imagined life than living through them, which entails the facing and/or voicing of ugly or exalted extremes within families, relationships, friendships, the historical/spiritual, even such out-of-immediate-control externals as national or international conflagrations. Still, and this is what touched me most about the poems taken together, about the poet’s possible nature, if it may be deduced via the energy that made them and their sentiments be, Tables/Corn does not depress, does not sink into self-pity, sanctimoniousness, or misanthropy. Nor do the poems set the poet as above or better than the rest, though the poet is cognizant and communicative of his education, erudition, discipline, striving to grow, succeed, even please as an artist in our tragi-comical, rapidly changing world.

This is not a poetry/poet of self-indulgent escapism either. A poem like Corn’s “Window On the World,” which dares to offer critiques of and possible revisions for the way the 9/11 event has been told, its artifacts valued, proves it; just as do his more personal lyrics like “Resources” and “Series Finale,” where we only need an actual name or names to be dropped that we may have the personal drama/s more true-to-life. Alas, the poet errs on the side of manners/gentility here or perhaps what Aristotle termed “the universal.” Tables has its delicious moments of mirth, too, which lend a needed sweetness, for example, in the wistful, almost Disney/Downton Abbey-worthy poem “Dinner Theater,” where “Sharp Knife starts bantering with Mrs. Fork—/Quips and metallic whispers re Parsnip,/The fossil he’s been trying to butter up.” And more of this table-ready whimsy is at hand while deciding upon a dessert in “Fig”: “What’s to put forward but the sleek green fellow,/The veiny, five-lobed leaf your wineskin swelled/Beside?—like the one Vatican marbles wear/To spare shy gazers a betraying blush.”

So what exactly does Alfred Corn give to those who attempt an ambitious read, a daring to be moved by what is pondered over in Tables? Not only a voice that says life must be lived despite failures, gruesomeness, confusions, deaths, or residual/accrued pain, but a voice that says it is best done when we pause to reflect, consider, reconsider, talk, gaze, read, play, love, pray, eat, drink, fashion art; to pick, smell, consider not just the thorns on the rose bush of life, for they are there, but to acknowledge and celebrate the roses they protect! In effect, Tables shows how we can try and leverage as well as apprehend meaning in a rough and tumble, sometimes painful, sometimes misunderstood world of relations and situations with roots bitter and sweet and in-between. The collection insists upon a world and life that can be enjoyed, lived, examined, leveraged—personally or in community, over a meal, say, whilst at table, reminiscing, joking, or just breaking bread.

Poems from Tables that explore the above and ask for loving rereading: “What the Thunder Said,” “Resources,” “Series Finale,” “Window On the World,” “Coals,” “Dinner Theater,” “Corn, Alfred, D. Jr.,” “St. Anthony in the Desert,” “Priority,” “Vines,” “Upbringing,” “Audubon,” “La Luz Azul,” “Poem Found….,” “Futbol,” “Fig,” “Bond Street Station Underground,” “Letter to Grace Shulman,” “Letter to James Fenton,” “Domus Caerulea,” “New England/China,” “Antarctic,” & “Lighthouse.”

 

The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from writer Woody Brown. Woody reads his short fiction piece “Sillyhead,” which appears in issue 12.3 of DIAGRAM.

http://archive.org/download/WoodyBrownTheEggshellParadeReadingAndInterview/WoodyBrownLouder.mp3

 

The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from poet Neil Shepard.

http://archive.org/download/NeilShepardInterviewAndReading/NeilShepardInterviewEdited.mp3

TY: I want to ask about line breaks, which can do a lot of work in free verse poems. What principles or rules or guidelines do you use when deciding when to break lines?

CW: I try to rely on composition as much or more than instinct. First of all, I aim to compose in lines. I don’t think of line breaks as an afterthought. For me, it’s helpful to read aloud while writing since line breaks are in part about breath. And relating form to content is essential. A poem whose energy is equable may want end-stopped lines with contained images, while one whose energy is frenetic or about a certain kind of momentum may require a type of enjambed composition. I ask myself, what is the poem trying to do? Different line breaks evoke different sensations.

While free verse isn’t governed by rules of meter or rhyme, there is no question that writing free verse can be informed by understanding how they work. I’ve found that experimenting with forms, especially with obsessive forms like sestinas and pantoums, has helped me see how lines work.  It’s not surprising that the writers who proposed the radical idea of free verse in the early 20th century were fluent in meter and traditional forms. Discipline was a means to liberty.

Francis Ford Coppola said something that I relate to this topic; something that has stayed with me. When filming Apocalypse Now, he told Dennis Hopper, “If you know your lines, then you can forget them. But it’s no fair to forget them if you never knew them.”

I like that in part because his ruling of “no fair” sounds like a playground outburst. After all, there’s a certain amount of play as well as rebelliousness in creating. But he underscores the need for laying groundwork before launching squally inventiveness. Similarly, Charlie Parker said, “Learn the changes and then forget them.” Not that writing is the same as interpreting character before a camera, or improvising onstage. But there’s a similar sort of negotiation that is best entered with knowledge of the constraints and a certain amount of skill working within them.

TY: How do you know when a poem wants to be in sections rather than presented as a whole block?

CW: Different stanza structures offer different rewards to the reader, so I consider what I’m trying to achieve with the piece. I use similar judgment regarding stanzas as I do with lines: I try to bring the concerns of content to the needs of form. Changing theme, shifting imagery, musical modulation, the need for a strong pause are some things I consider when determining stanzas. As with lines, experimenting with stanzas brings to light for me the various ways they can build or temper tension and sustain the reader’s investment in the piece. I have a poem called Velocity about a drive at night and the rush of images the narrator sees in her headlights. I presented that piece in a unified block. The content was about an almost manic state and presenting the piece in a unified block created an unremitting tension that mirrored the narrator’s experience. Another poem in “Bartab”, Belly Up, is the expression of a kind of spiral of ruminative thought or anxiety. The same kind of stanza structure would have been too much. Ordering it in carefully composed lines separated the movements and mitigated the tautness.

TY: Some writers talk about inspiration – a Muse is the traditional term – is there anything in your life that inspires you to write and keeps you going when you don’t feel like it?

CW: I grew up in a very isolated place in the rural South and spent a great deal of time alone. That solitude along with an unpredictable and often violent home environment cultivated my imagination by necessity. In those years, flights of imagination were corporeal needs. They were acts of survival. Music and dance and language were terribly important to me. And they still have a power and magic for me that reach beyond fleeting pleasure or escapism. I’ve always tried to write songs I needed to hear. Now I try to write what I want to read. A startling image or seemingly insignificant detail can draw together a moment of unity or emotional clarity. This aspiration continues to summon me. Writing is also an urge for catharsis; a way to exorcise elements of my past and to process it. I know it sounds bizarre, but I have long felt that writing for me is a way to dialogue with generations of my family.

While I do it differently than I did years ago, for me inspiration requires surprise. When I was younger, I bought into the idea that an artist has to live a life of violent transitions. If I wasn’t feeling inspired, I felt it was my duty to go out and challenge stasis. I felt I could only draw on the experiences of upheaval and privation and exhilaration. I’ve outgrown that self-destructive urge, but the need for surprise remains.

Since I was a teen I have rather defensively defied traditional gatekeepers who hindered my efforts at getting my voice and work into the world to connect with a listener or a reader. I’m still driven by this. Before I began the manuscript for “Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad”, I had inherited a bit of the cultural disdain for feminine forms of expression, for the journal or diary. But after confronting events I couldn’t have possibly anticipated, I made a decision to work within personal narrative. Considering the challenges and dangers confronting girls and women, as well as the silence and secrecy surrounding those perils, telling our individual stories can be politically empowering. I teach writing workshops to women in recovery. When you give permission to these women to write about their lives, to talk about things that aren’t part of the cultural dialogue, it’s powerful. You can see the inception of a transformation. I’m inspired by the idea of a similar exchange with a reader.

I could go on about this topic. For example, I would love to talk about Lorca’s “duende” and how my pursuit of it has been important to me since I was a much younger writer. Suffice it to say, I find inspiration everywhere because I like to solve problems. I get excited when I read something that succeeds or excels in what it aims to do. I want to know how the writer achieved that and I set about figuring it out.

Perhaps more important than the question of inspiration is how to persist in its absence. For me, the answer is just that – persistence. Perspiration is more reliable than talent or inspiration.

booklady bathroom pic

TY: I hear lots of sound devices in your poems, which is one of the ways even contemporary poems can sound musical. Have you been influenced by music in your writing? Or how did you become conscious of and use sound so well in your work?

CW: I’ve absolutely been influenced by music. I grew up drenched in music of every kind. I was taught nursery rhymes from a very young age, and memorizing Bible verses was very important. We had songs and rhymes for every occasion when I was small that I still remember – a morning song, and one to say goodnight and even one for when I came out of the bath! It was great stuff, really instructive in language while filling me with delight. Not surprisingly, my first poems were really just juxtapositions of different words that were interesting for their harmonic interplay, if you will; experiments with the music of language. Today when I’m at work on something, I have found that reciting it while walking helps me explore its rhythm. I’m very conscious of poems as something read aloud, the physical sensation of their recitation, how it’s like singing. When talking with excitement about something I’m working on, I frequently slip and call a poem a song and vice versa. It used to cause me chagrin, but now I look at it as a blessing, the fact that there’s unity in the things I love to do.

TY: What writers do you return to most often? Why? What is in their work that continues to teach you?

CW: Andre Dubus, Sherwood Anderson, Richard Yates, Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, Susan Minot, Breece D’J Pancake. When I was a student of Gregory Orr, he talked to me about creating one’s family of writers, and I think it’s essential, really. Among poets, I’d say Sharon Olds, Charles Simic, Jane Kenyon, Gregory Orr. I love how Simic never gets in the way of the poem but trusts the unadorned image. But in talking about what I admire and try to learn from these writers, I could devote several hours to each.

________________________________________________
Cesca Janece Waterfield is a journalist, poet, and songwriter based in Virginia. She has been selected three times to receive songwriter grants from The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). She is the author of Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad (Two-Handed Engine Press). Her poems and fiction have appeared in numerous literary journals. She can be reached at cescawaterfield.com

 

 

Contrapuntal
By Christopher Kondrich
Parlor Press, 2012
ISBN 978-1602353671

Music, for being such a well-diffused cultural product, can be challenging to adequately write about. Like many creative disciplines, it commands its own lexicon and sits atop a tall barrier of entry. But this shouldn’t preclude anyone who wants to get hip-deep; we’ve all experienced music to some degree and should attempt to verbalize our reactions to its influence.

Then you have folks like Christopher Kondrich, a poet who is clearly comfortable writing through the influence of music in his latest collection, Contrapuntal. The first instinct one might have with a book titled after the musical theoretical concept of counterpoint (two or more melodies moving with respect to each other), is to look for counterpoint’s influence on the book’s metrical and sonic aspects. Such an approach would not be a mistake, but Contrapuntal is more than a book of poems informed by musical theory. Kondrich transposes counterpoint and lyrical melody in a book that, yes, deserves to be read aloud (as most books of poetry do).

Four sections comprise the book, and each one is made up of mostly single-page title-free poems that read with a clear, slippery speed. The lines are mostly short enough to slide into one another without any friction on the surface, prompting the reader to stop and revaluate the lines being read. This is a metrical way of demanding a closer inspection, and the poems work for it. Without titles to ground (or disrupt) particular readings of each poem, it’s easy to lose focus on what the aim of each page may be, but the poems channel and direct the reader well.

Between “T”(“Tim”), and the narrator, a slight narrative emerges, but the dates and times are unclear and not really the point. They’re more like those previously mentioned melodic lines swirling around each other, occasionally harmonizing or just meeting within and throughout the poems. More so, there is a sense of self, and self-contradiction and counterpoint, that also swings throughout the book. Early on we get (from I feel it all time):

but either way I can
empathize with you,
not to mention empathize
with myself as I felt
that day telling you
that I can because
I did at the time
and I do now.

Like notes, certain words are emphasized and repeated within and between poems. Here Kondrich brings those notes into play, twining the threads of “you” and “I” and the various identities within the self. Rather than simply penning “I” poems, these lines drill down past the subjective, and by the end the “I” is almost lost. Later we get (from Tonight, the piano will project me into a dream):

threaded outside into something wonderful
and this is called counterpoint

a need to return to a previous state
buried beneath years of habit and rationale

Here the illusion of time rendered through music is brought into play with regard to the self, which is never really static or concrete, but a series of states paved over in sedimentary layers. On the next page:

that’s what one of your colleagues asked me
the man asked me if I felt looped.

If not looped, then maybe even conversing with the self, digging through layers—or not—and bound to repeat the same actions. The first poem of book 4:

Lying awake
I heard two voices
both of which were mine.
I was always afraid they
would remove what I held
in my invisible hands,
and then came the hour
I had to accept
because living meant
accepting the loss
of one hour after another,
of what felt like an hour,
which could be two,
which could be none,
a mere few minutes
compressed into a rock
the size of a thumb.
I spent part of the night
on the couch another part
at the kitchen table—
I would like some tea,
said one of my voices.

This is a solid example of Kondrich’s ability to express the experience of music, listening to music, and collating the voices in and around us. This is the final dissemination of self into segments, parts, a non-centralized existence without the core.

Contrapuntal is not a book about diametrics, bipolarity, or extremes, but rather a sonic and sonorous exploration of the way music, sound, time, and relationships exist throughout the body, mind, and self. Such a read is what contemporary poetry is poised to accomplish, and Kondrich has a measured and meticulous style that winds well around the musical and interpersonal ideas he’s presenting here.